Welcome to the Tournament of Episodes, an unending game of bloodsport between some of the best episodes of the 2013-14 TV season, inspired by The Morning News’ Tournament Of Books. To learn more and see the schedule, go here. Today’s competing shows also include Bob’s Burgers, The Good Wife, The Americans, Sleepy Hollow, Review With Forrest MacNeil, and Rick And Morty
It’s already time for round one of the Tournament to conclude. As always, if you disagree with a choice, we’ve provided the option to vote for the other below each match.
Let’s begin today with two episodes (with titles that rhyme!) that shatter their ensembles with explosive revelations. Genevieve Valentine has the call.
Bob’s Burgers, “Turkey In A Can” vs. The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan”
Genevieve Valentine: At first this seems a disparate bracket. One is holiday fun from a scratchy-at-the-edges animated sitcom, featuring vomit at regular intervals; the other’s a big-payoff episode of a drama that’s got all the polish being a CBS headliner allows, and so tense it makes you want to vomit. However, these are two shows firing equally on all cylinders for character-centric stories about families in turmoil. Dumping a turkey in the toilet or sneaking clients out the door: It’s only a matter of degrees.
“Turkey In A Can” is a particularly fine episode of Bob’s Burgers, highlighting both the good-natured family strangeness at its core and its technical chops: It’s impeccably constructed both as an ensemble piece and as a procedural. Bob’s escalating trips to the meat counter make one of the best C-plots of the season, balanced against Louise’s outraged detective work, Gene’s Thanksgiving carol, and Tina’s imitation of adulthood, so determinedly dull she out-grownups the grownups. (In this economy?) It’s Bob’s at its off-kilter best with an ending so warm it’s almost queasy.
Unfortunate for Bob, it’s up against one of the tightest episodes of TV this season. From its first minute, “Hitting The Fan” never stops moving, playing on character backgrounds but scripted with such political-thriller flair that even a viewer going into The Good Wife cold could still follow some of the long-simmering motives behind this galvanizing moment. It’s a fearless reset button, and watching this cadre sink their teeth into high-speed legal one-upmanship that moves from devastated to nearly giddy is a fantastic hour.
It’s a very tough call between two very different shows, but in the end, an hour-long explosion trumps even the siren song of the Gravy Boat.
Winner: The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan”
Next up, consider two episodes that take unique perspectives on key moments in American history. (Okay, even we admit that one was a little weak. How about we just pretend Ronald Reagan was a necromancer so the pairing makes more sense?) Scott Von Doviak offers his thoughts.
The Americans, “Behind The Red Door” vs. Sleepy Hollow, “Necromancer”
Scott Von Doviak: On paper, this isn’t close to being a fair fight. While I’m not quite as enamored of The Americans as most of my critical colleagues, I do watch it on a weekly basis. Before watching “Necromancer” for this assignment, I had never seen an episode of Sleepy Hollow. As it turns out, the first five minutes of “Necromancer” are crammed with an almost comical amount of exposition, which was helpful in terms of orienting myself with the show but detrimental to the quality of the episode itself.
Tonally, the two battling episodes have little in common: “Behind The Red Door” embodies the usual Americans mode of cool, muted realism (which sometimes leads to the show getting a pass for implausibility, but that’s another story), while “Necromancer” features demons exploding into dust and our hero sword-fighting a headless horseman. There are some superficial plot similarities, in that each episode involves the male/female leads conducting an interrogation of an enemy who will go on to cause them great trouble, but no one is ever going to get these two shows confused for each other.
Despite my unfamiliarity with Sleepy Hollow, “Necromancer” works well enough as a self-contained hour of television. Much of the action is contained to the horseman’s holding cell, the flashbacks are smartly integrated, and the witty repartee between Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison suggests that a future binge-watch of the show wouldn’t be the worst idea. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that I have much more history with the characters in The Americans. “Behind The Red Door,” while not my favorite episode of the season, digs deeper into its central relationship, probing the complications (psychological, sexual, and otherwise) that arise when ideological concerns clash with personal needs.
Winner: The Americans, “Behind The Red Door”
For the next match, we made Alasdair Wilkins judge two episodes that would require the sternest of stomachs, because we knew he had the, er, guts.
Broad City, “The Last Supper” vs. Hannibal, “Takiawase”
Alasdair Wilkins: Any fool can point out that Hannibal and Broad City are very different shows, but it takes a special kind of fool to argue that these two brilliant episodes are essentially the exact same story. Consider this: So many of Hannibal’s prevailing themes—the contrast between public and private identities, the ever-present specter of death, the sick fascination with food, the body horror—can all be found in Broad City’s first season finale, which finds the hyper-energetic Abbi and Ilana at a posh New York restaurant.
Seth Morris’ waiter may lack Hannibal Lecter’s murderous appetites, but “The Last Supper” wrings many of its biggest laughs from the gap between his presumed classiness and his raging arguments back in the kitchen; more generally, the opulent restaurant proves the perfect contrast for conversations that are coarse even by Broad City’s heady standards. The show’s depiction of shellfish allergies even manages to rival “Takiawase” and its human beehives for gruesomely visceral imagery. Throw in some disorienting hallucinations, characters smoking weed to relieve stress, and climactic trips to the emergency room, and the parallels become downright uncanny.
In picking between the two, it’s tempting to be swayed by Hannibal’s superior ambition, but a character-driven sitcom like Broad City can’t fairly be expected to hit the kind of narrative and thematic crescendos found in “Takiawase.” I’d split that difference somewhat in another way. “The Last Supper” is a remarkably assured finale, one that lets the show’s external zaniness recede to better focus on its protagonists’ own particular lunacy. Such an encapsulation of the show’s core strengths is a worthy way to end a season. But with “Takiawase,” Hannibal’s second season really begins its experimentation, pushing itself into ever more unfamiliar territory. It manages the rare trick of being both impressive and exhilarating, and that earns Hannibal the nod.
Winner: Hannibal, “Takiawase”
In the final match of the day, Joshua Alston considers two of the most inventive comedy episodes of the season, from two of the most inventive new comedies.
Review With Forrest MacNeil, “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” vs. Rick And Morty, “Rixty Minutes”
Joshua Alston: In “Rixty Minutes” and “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes,” two men—one animated, the other decidedly not—take sobering looks at how different their lives would be if not for their better halves, and both episodes make strong cases for loving the one you’re with. But the drastically different approaches to this theme in Rick And Morty and Review lends one episode a level of gravitas the other couldn’t hope for. That probably makes it sound like I gave the edge to Review, which oozes faux-gravitas between its experiential journalism conceit and the ponderous tone of host Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly), but Rick And Morty’s unabashed romance won the day.
Both episodes are brilliant—and I’m wondering why I’d never watched either prior to this exercise—but Review’s comic treatise on marriage is bleaker and more simplistic. One of MacNeil’s casually sadistic at-home viewers suggests he divorce his lovely wife (Jessica St. Clair), and he discovers leaving someone awesome is not awesome, which… y’know, obviously.
Rick And Morty’s monogamy meditation is about predestination, so for anyone who feels true love is rooted in volition, “Rixty Minutes” is actually the less romantic episode. But for anyone who gets goosebumps from the concept of soul mates, the episode is a direct hit. Jerry and Beth see their alternate-reality counterparts, and after initially wondering if they would be happier apart, they learn there’s no such thing as apart—all paths lead to their pairing. The trouble with wondering if you’re with the right person is the potentially false presupposition there is another person. (It helps that the revelation is set to Belly’s “Seal My Fate,” from its underrated second album.) What “Rixty Minutes” lacks in pancake puke, it makes up in silliness and sentimentality.
Winner: Rick And Morty, “Rixty Minutes”
Tomorrow: The quarterfinals! Check out the full bracket below.